Economics: too dismal for women?

Luci Ellis

Luci Ellis Assistant Governor (Economic), RBA


Unfortunately both in general and for female students, economics is not exactly popular in Australia.

The decline in the female share of tertiary students in management and commerce over the past decade has only been marginal and the student population is reasonably balanced between males and females.

But for economics the share of female university students has always been much lower and appears to have fallen further more recently.

Even more concerning is total student numbers in economics appear to have fallen at our universities over the past couple of decades although some data show a small pick-up more recently.

The picture is even worse at school level. Taking New South Wales just as an example, fewer students are doing economics in Year 12, and a declining proportion of that declining number are female.

From what we understand, when business studies subjects were introduced they expanded at the expense of economics. Most of that shift happened in the 1990s.

I can't help wondering if the experience of the early 1990s recession, or the popular discussion at the time about ‘economic rationalism’ made economics somehow uncool.

Or maybe business studies was seen as easier for students, or for teachers; or maybe general subjects are seen as better for employability. We just don't know.

At least we can say it seems the global financial crisis, which is considered in some quarters to represent a failure of economics as a discipline, did not have the same effect.

In fact we hear from some students, young and old, who were inspired to study economics by the crisis. Maybe that has something to do with the small pick-up in total university student numbers recently.

Voluminous literature

There is already a voluminous literature on the sex imbalance in the economics profession. Equality of the sexes is one of the areas where new data, and big data, have been instrumental in replacing pontification with evidence-based insight.

We can no longer dismiss suggestions the treatment or representation of females are subject to negative biases and other disadvantages. From analysis of movie dialogue to matched-resume studies, evidence of bias now has statistical weight.

One piece of positive news from these new data sets is in US academia, at least, evidence of raw bias is no longer present in most Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields. Male and female academics who publish the same number of papers will on average have the same experiences in hiring and promotion.

However, economics is an outlier; there is still apparent bias in those hiring and promotion decisions. In an earlier paper, the authors (Ginther DK and S Kahn’s, Women in Economics: Moving Up or Falling Off the Academic Career Ladder?) summarised their results by saying, “It seems that once men have assistant professor status in economics, they get tenure irrespective of their publications, citations or background, while women … only receive tenure based more on observable traits.”

Other recent research suggests part of the problem arises because selection committees don't give female economists sufficient credit for their work when the work is co-authored with men.

It is therefore not surprising economics, unlike most other technical disciplines such as statistics, has not seen much increase in the share of PhDs granted to women or other metrics of the ‘pipeline’ to senior positions.

Given the few women in senior faculty positions it is also no surprise that economics does not attract many women even at undergraduate level.  This is especially disappointing given economics is so important to understanding aspects of everyday life, media commentary and public policy discourse.

One conclusion we can draw is if there is some form of objective criteria for career progression, such as publications or profits, it is harder for unconscious biases to influence outcomes.

But we also know from the same research married men in STEM fields had better publication records on average than either single men or married and single women.

This might suggest women do not receive the same kind of spousal support of their careers, and therefore publication records might overstate the underlying abilities of married men in academia.

I do fear organisations could do everything in their power to eliminate biases and obstacles to female participation, but it won't be enough because of the presumptions operating within at least some couples.

Not all bad

It isn't all bad news for equality of the sexes in economics, though, at least not at the Reserve Bank. Some concerted effort and rethinking of our recruitment strategies have resulted in a marked turnaround in the share of female graduates in our intake this year.

Contrary to what some people might fear, we didn't have to lower our standards. Nor did we have to recruit candidates from outside the family of disciplines we usually recruit from, such as economics, finance, law, mathematics and statistics.

Instead we engaged more intensively with universities so students knew about the Reserve Bank as a place where one can have a rewarding career in an inclusive environment.

We used separate teams for shortlisting and interviewing, to reduce unconscious biases at later stages of the selection process.

We moved our recruitment campaign earlier and started fast-tracking the obviously good candidates to interview and decision before deciding on the full slate of interviewees.

I believe this last change was particularly important because we are competing with many other organisations for the best candidates, whether male or female. If we are later than our competitors, we never even see some candidates.

By the time applications for jobs at the Reserve Bank opened, someone had already snapped them up. I believe that's especially relevant for the female candidates, though.

In a male-dominated field where many employers are trying to rectify their gender balance, everyone is competing for the same strong female candidates.

Equality of the sexes is essential if we are to achieve our economic potential as a nation. When someone faces bias or artificial obstacles, it holds all of us back.

Overcoming those biases and unmaking those obstacles won't be easy, either in the profession or in other workplaces. But it is certainly worth doing, for both males and females, now and in future.

Luci Ellis is Assistant Governor (Economic) at the Reserve Bank of Australia

This is an edited extract of a speech given by Ellis to launch the Women in Economics Network (WEN). The event was sponsored by ANZ.

WEN was formed to promote and support the career development of women in the economics profession in Australia.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.